By Paul Nicholson
October 10 – The Syrian dream of their first ever World Cup appearance was shattered in the second half of extra time in Australia when Tim Cahill headed in his second goal of the match with 11 minutes remaining.
Until then the world of football stood still as one of the most unlikely stories ever looked like becoming a fairy tale reality. A team from a war-ravaged country, organised on a shoe-string budget, who have played all their fixtures outside their homeland, and ranked 75th in the world, was on the verge of qualifying for the Russia 2018 World Cup finals.
Syrian state TV broadcasting was dominated with coverage of the country’s World Cup qualifying match, airing special programming with live footage of huge crowds in Damascus’s Umayyad Square, Aleppo, Homs and Sweida. Syrians had taken to the streets en masse to follow their team and show national support, reported news outlets around the world.
Shadi Helweh, usually Syrian TV’s war correspondent, who famously covered the landmark recapture of the city by government forces in December 2016, led the celebrations after a sixth-minute goal that put the Syrians 1-0 up and 2-1 on aggregate.
“The goal has taken us back to a year ago, when the Syrian army liberated the city of Aleppo. Look at these crowds,” Helweh shouted.
It wasn’t to last. Omar Al Somah’s left-footed strike into the roof of the net was cancelled out by Aussie skipper Cahill’s 12th minute header into the bottom corner of the Syrian goal.
But with Australia increasingly dominant, the Syrian resistance was resolute and hope was never lost.
As extra time begun Syria were reduced to 10 men after a second yellow card was given to Mahmoud Al Maowas. Syria were already under heavy and unceasing bombardment – what resilience!
But it was almost inevitable that the match wasn’t going to make it to the penalty shoot-out and similarly inevitable it would take Cahill to get the Aussies over the line in the second half of extra time. Robbie Kruse found space on the left-edge of the box and crossed for Cahill to head in his 50th international goal for Australia.
Australian players and supporters were jubilant. Syria supporters were in tears inside the ANZ Stadium.
Australia will now go on to facethe fourth placed team from the CONCACAF qualifiers – one of Honduras, Panama or the USA. Australia are aiming for their fourth straight appearance in the finals.
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